I recently wrote about why I wish you would invite a skilled facilitator to help your team with collaboration. I talk a lot about why this should be more than just a nice-to-have, and now I’d like to share a personal story when I got a taste of my own medicine.
In addition to working with innovative, high-achieving organizations as a collaboration strategist, since 2020 I’ve been running a mastermind program once or twice a year to help people untangle their career questions. After the 2021 fall cohort I decided to take a step back from facilitating the program myself and recruited three new facilitators with different backgrounds and expertise to join in.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted the team to go through a crash course in facilitation together so they can learn new tools and feel as prepared as possible. I also knew I didn’t want to be the one teaching the session, but instead wanted to have someone else hold space for us so I could also be a part of the group and explore the topic along with the others.
At this point, I was thinking of having an external facilitator as something useful, but not an absolute necessity. I thought it was an extra I could offer the team, and I was proud of myself for doing it. It was only by the end of the program that I realized I’d been wrong.
I now believe that having Judit, our facilitator, on the team was essential to the success of the program, and I’m going to share with you why that is.
Judit ended up holding three sessions for us: one before the program started, one at the halfway point, and one after the program had ended.
Before the first session, the facilitation crash course, she interviewed each team member to get a sense of who they were and how she could best help them. I was the one who knew these people and the program, and she was the one who provided an external point of view. The combination of these two things (insider knowledge and an objective third party’s insights) helped us design a session that could address the true needs of the group much more effectively than a session developed by either one of us individually.
The second session halfway through the program was a big turning point for me. It turned out I wasn’t able to attend, but in hindsight, I think it might have been better this way.
In the middle of a project there’s usually a storming phase where unexpected issues cause stress in the team. Even if it never breaches the surface in the form of conflict, it still plays out on an individual level, affecting people emotionally. Having a dedicated space and time to do a pulse check and talk about what’s going on and how people are feeling is extremely useful at this stage, as it can bring to light problem areas that need your attention and can help reset the team.
The meeting Judit facilitated for the group did exactly that. They were able to blow off steam and raise issues that were bothering them or that they felt were unclear. And I think it’s lucky I couldn’t be there, because these are the things people don’t like to talk about in front of their leader for fear of appearing unprofessional or incompetent. But they are still there, taking a toll. Proactively raising these issues can feel like an interpersonal risk, but a facilitated container where people are there with that specific goal makes it easier. In that setting, as soon as you say it out loud, it’s no longer just your issue, it’s the whole team’s, and you can come up with solutions together.
After the session, Judit briefed me on the team’s general state of mind. Her insights were invaluable, and they helped me create a to-do list with issues I needed to address in our team meetings. For example, from what she shared I learned there were some burning questions regarding roles and responsibilities, which I never would have realized on my own, since from my point of view everyone was doing a great job.
Judit also acted as an interpreter in this situation. Before meeting with the team, she and I had a chat where I said that I felt the team was doing a much better job than I could have been doing at that time. She heard me say that, then went into the meeting with the team and listened to them talking about how different the program had been when I was running it, wishing they could do the same. She was hearing two completely different stories, and was able to bring this discrepancy to my attention. Now I had a chance to come up with ideas that would help the team see how well they were doing.
This situation was eerily similar to what I regularly experience in my own role with clients. When you’re inside the team, or personally connected to it in some way, you can only see the status quo from your own perspective, and everyone else is in the same boat. This means that no one on the inside has the full picture when it comes to team dynamics. But an external party who is skilled at viewing things through an interpersonal lens can connect the dots and help you gain information that had previously been unavailable to you.
Our final session with Judit took place after the program had ended. Just like for the first session, she conducted interviews with everyone on the team, and we combined her insights with my own to come up with a goal for the workshop. Based on what we saw, we decided it shouldn’t be a formal evaluation of the program, but something more like an emotional conclusion where we can celebrate all that we’ve learned and achieved.
In the end, Judit brought 4 questions to the workshop.
When I’m facilitating for my clients, they sometimes comment after the session that “we could have done this for ourselves.” And it’s easy to think that because from their perspective, I had really only asked them 4 questions. What they don’t see is the process behind coming up with those very specific questions that will help them reach their goal.
For our final workshop, I could have easily told Judit to include whatever I thought the team needed, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful as it was with those 4 questions. She was the one who had talked to everyone in the group, assessed needs, and interpreted team dynamics, which is what enabled her to pinpoint the topics we needed to address much better than I could have done, seeing as I was still a part of the group. She could formulate the exact questions that would take the team from where we were to where I wanted us to be by the end of the program.
Having observed her process for designing the workshop, “even though we only got 4 questions,” I was more than satisfied. Not for one moment did I think I could have done what she did in my role as a leader of the team – and I do facilitation for a living. She delivered exactly what the team needed in that specific emotional state at that specific time, and the fact that I was an equal member of that team greatly helped the team dynamics.
This whole experience of hiring an external facilitator let me walk a mile in my clients’ shoes. Even though I was aware of the benefits, I was still thinking of it as a nice-to-have in the beginning. And I was so proud of myself for providing an extra form of support to the team. It took going through the process in the role of team leader to really drive the message home.
I know now that whenever I run the program again, or lead another team on a different but similarly complex project, I will once more ask an external facilitator to join us. There will always be things they can see that I can’t.
Hiring an external facilitator is not mainstream in business today, but I wish it were. I believe every team should be able to get the support our team received during this process. This is what I always tell my clients, but I was shocked that even after consistently advocating for this, when I was in the shoes of a team leader I still considered working with a facilitator as a nice-to-have, not as an essential element of our effective teamwork.
This guidance helped us move through inevitable team dynamics in a much healthier way.The first session helped the team clarify expectations and gain information so they could hit the ground running. In the middle, there was a storming phase where the external role proved invaluable in addressing important issues and easing concerns. The final workshop helped the team reach an emotional conclusion and end the project on a high note.
We had 3 facilitated sessions for a 10-week program. In the tech industry, where most of my clients come from, it’s not uncommon for projects to last years. Ideally, I think you should have at least one workshop for each phase of a project where instead of talking about the specifics of the project, you check in to see where people are at emotionally, what hopes and concerns are present in the team, and what’s (not) working in your collaboration.
Working with a facilitator on this could not only help the team feel aligned and reach their goals faster, but also make sure that you as a leader don’t have any blind spots where you are missing important issues affecting your team.
As a collaboration strategist, I support teams, project teams, and even entire organizations to give them an external viewpoint and support them in their current collaboration challenges. If you are a leader or project manager looking for ways to support your teams, get in touch and let’s have a conversation about partnering up for the task.
Also, I would maybe make the title a bit snappier:
Why I will always hire a facilitator – even though I am one!
What a facilitator should always hire a facilitator
something like that, it’s a good opportunity to have some fun with this double facilitator phrasing